Alzheimer's Disease: The Devil's in the Denial

It starts innocently enough, with friends and family covering for your loved one’s cognitive slide. They think they’re being helpful. They may subconsciously believe their denial will magically restore powers to your loved one to help her snap out of it. As a caregiver, even you may have moments of denial when your loved one enters the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Angela Lunde, a dementia education specialist for Mayo Clinic, sees this denial frequently. “Most of us caring for someone in the early stages of a dementia go through this sort of dance where we waver between promoting independence and offering help. We want desperately for things to stay static and for the person (and us) to maintain independence.”

Even simple tasks committed to long-term memory are more complicated than you imagine. When preparing breakfast, for example, there are a number of steps required to complete each task — from heating a pan to cracking the eggs. “The truth is, people with Alzheimer’s can’t ‘just try harder,’ and it’s not realistic to expect them to do all they used to do,” explains Lunde.

Non-caregiving family and friends may blow through your world, showing a little devotion to a senior who snaps to attention for those few minutes; however, it’s difficult for those people to understand (or even accept) what goes on once they’ve left. “Denial masks emotions of grief, loss, fear, and uncertainty,” Lunde writes. This might explain why some family members have a hard time coming to terms with a loved one’s illness.

A trip to the primary care physician’s office is no guarantee that you’ll receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or even a mild form of dementia. According to HomeCare.com, “The best way to get everyone on the same page is to get to the heart of the matter by scheduling a geriatric assessment.”

My dad was an expert at fooling everyone except my mother and me. Once my mother died, I was alone in seeing the truth. Even as I attempted to admit him to a geriatric facility for evaluation, I had a hard time getting them to admit him — even with doctor’s orders. He was perfectly lucid, and, because the admitting nurse practitioner told me he was fine, I was the one acting crazy.

HomeCare.com adds: “Parents with dementia and some people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, especially if they have good social skills, can be very good at covering up the deterioration.” That was the situation with my father.

Finally, after a week of constant monitoring, his team of medical practitioners determined that my father displayed symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and their best guess was that he was six years into the disease. When I heard this, my first reaction was to breathe a sigh of relief, hopeful that the denial was coming to an end — or so I thought.

Remember that your sibling(s) may be in the same meeting with the doctor, or may receive the same written confirmation, and they may still deny that the doctor ever made the diagnosis.

If you find yourself in this situation, you have one responsibility: to take care of yourself. Your loved one’s Alzheimer’s disease is going to change your life. Family members might never accept the diagnosis; don’t let them turn their inability to accept reality into your problem.

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